Petcoke From Koch Carbon’s Detroit Tar Sands Waste Pile Finds Its Way Back To Canada

It seems Koch Carbon, who own the mound of petroleum coke waste piling up on the side of the Detroit River, need to look no further than Canada to sell their high-polluting industrial waste as fuel. Of course, the irony here is that the petcoke is itself a byproduct of imported Canadian tar sands crude being refined in a Marathon Petroleum plant down the river.

Ian Austen writes in the New York Times, that a "Canadian electrical power plant, owned by Nova Scotia Power…is burning the high-carbon, high-sulfur waste product because it is cheaper than natural gas."  

Residents have reported "regular visits to the coke pile by two self-unloading, oceangoing bulk carriers owned by Canada Steamship Lines of Montreal." Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) is owned by former Prime Minister Paul Martin's sons, Paul Jr., David and James.

Tracking websites confirmed that one of the CSL ships, Atlantic Huron, "made several trips this year from Detroit to a coal terminal in Sydney, Nova Scotia" which services two petcoke-burning Nova Scotia Power plants.

Austen quotes Neeta Ritcey, spokeswoman for Nova Scotia Power, as confirming that the company bought fuel from the Detroit stockpile for "competitive reasons."

North American petcoke is often sold to countries like China, India and Mexico, where emissions regulations are relatively lax. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not allow the burning of petcoke in the US.

While Nova Scotia Power does burn cleaner fuel like natural gas from offshore fields, Austen notes that "the company produced 59 percent of its power from coal and petroleum coke [in 2012], an increase of two percentage points from 2011."

In a blog post, Wayne O'Connor, Nova Scotia Power's executive vice president for operations said that because of rising natural gas prices, "the switch to coal help save our customers money over continuing to use gas, while still allowing us to meet emissions requirements." His phrasing lumps petcoke in with coal, and fails to mention that the former is even more polluting.

A report by Lorne Stockman for environmental group Oil Change International found that a "ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal." Stockman also notes that petcoke emissions are "not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption."

This means that petcoke isn't taken into account when assessing the impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Should the Obama administration approve Keystone XL, the increased imports of tar sands bitumen crude into US refineries will only replicate the Detroit stockpile in various locations around the country. And with fresh petcoke waste waiting to be sold and shipped by industrialists like the Koch brothers and the Martin family, this carbon-rich, dirty fuel could end up right back in coal-fired power plants all over Canada.

In the meanwhile, even without Keystone XL boosting petcoke production, the Detroit pile shows no signs of disappearing. As Austen observes, despite the petcoke being shipped away regularly, "the oil sands bitumen refinery there is producing the material at a rate which means the waterfront pile continues to grow."

Image Credit: Suncor Energy / Flickr

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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